By 2026, nearly one out of every four Canadians will be a senior, a population that will outnumber children for the first time in this country’s history.
An aging population
As Canada’s baby boomers age, they will be the longest lived and best educated generation of seniors ever. At the same time, their large numbers will significantly increase the percentage of Canadians facing health problems due to age. They will also increase the number of Canadians living with mental health problems. Already, about one in four Canadian seniors lives with a mental illness such as depression, dementia, anxiety, or a psychotic disorder.
A mental health dilemma
According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, there were nearly half a million Canadians living with dementia in 2008, and this number is expected to more than double by 2038. Since most Canadians with dementia live at home and rely on family members for care, the impact will reach far beyond just those living with the illness. Family caregivers will need information and support in order to maintain their own health and to participate effectively in the care of their loved ones. Health policy experts insist that the time to prepare our health and social services systems for these challenges is now.
A guiding hand
On October 12, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) released the Guidelines for Comprehensive Mental Health Services for Older Adults in Canada. The Guidelines were developed with input from seniors, their families, service planners, and service providers from across the country, and will support those individuals and groups working to ensure that the diverse mental health needs of Canadian seniors are met in the coming decades. The Guidelines offer a range of options for addressing seniors’ mental health needs, based on up-to-date evidence for what works—such as recommendations for how mental health outreach services can provide access to support and treatment for seniors where they live.
The end goal is for these Guidelines to spark an ongoing exchange of ideas, collaboration, and innovation among those working to support older adults and their families. An online version of the Guidelines will include detailed examples of programs and services from across Canada that are making a difference today in the lives of seniors and their families. These programs will be examined further and implemented in other parts of the country.
A brighter future
Investing in mental health services for seniors is not only the right thing to do, it also allows our health care system to benefit from the ongoing contributions of seniors as family caregivers and volunteers in the community, while reducing the need for prolonged hospital care.
Mental illness does not have to be an inevitable part of aging. Effective treatments are available and there are services and supports that can significantly improve the quality of life of seniors living with progressive illnesses such as dementia. There is also help available for the loved ones who care for them, and the Guidelines make that clear.
Please take the time to read the Guidelines and share them with others.
Marie-France Rivard is the Chair of the MHCC’s Seniors Advisory Committee and a geriatric psychiatrist practicing in Ottawa. Her longstanding interests include education and improving accessibility of clinical services for seniors with mental health problems.
Sophie Sapergia is a Policy & Research Analyst at the Mental Health Commission of Canada with a background in research in the areas of seniors’ mental health, dementia care, and support for caregivers.